>A choice of meta-narratives
alternative one: Once upon a time there existed a thriving religious tradition. But then this ancient and once proud faith entered into a period of prolonged decline, which continued until this degeneration reached such an advanced state that all of the adherents voluntarily, even enthusiastically, abandoned the beliefs and practices they had had for thousands of years and adopted some other religion that they all now found more to their liking.
In such a hypothetical case, what justification could there be, today, for reviving that now defunct religious tradition, since it had been completely rejected by its own original followers?
Perhaps, one might argue, those earlier adherents had been mistaken, and this mistake has only been revealed over time, or for whatever reason was not seen by them but is seen and understood by us now? Well, mistakes do happen. But isn’t it far more likely that those who actually lived and practiced those ancient ways, and had done so for thousands of years, constitute far better judges of the worthiness of that faith, so intimately known to them, than we could possibly be today, at such a great remove in terms of time, language, and culture?
alternative two: Once upon a time there was a vibrant and dynamic religious tradition. But then a new religion came along whose followers sought to convert everyone to their new faith, and to do so they were willing, indeed eager, to resort to any means necessary, including coercion and violence. Faced with social ostracism, job discrimination, mob violence, punitive fines, imprisonment, beatings, torture and execution, many did as the many often do in the face of threats and force, and meekly acquiesced without much of a struggle, or at least did so once the new religion was in possession of sufficient means of persuasion.
However, despite the relative ease with which some were “converted”, others courageously distinguished themselves by resisting the new religion and stubbornly clinging to their old ways and their old Gods.
Wouldn’t there be, in this second scenario as opposed to the first, a far stronger case for later reviving this “old religion” (to borrow a phrase)? And would not those who had most stubbornly resisted conversion be the natural heroes and exemplars of any who wished to enact such a revival?
In comparing these two alternative narratives it should be obvious that the manner in which the older religion was replaced by the newer one makes a great deal of difference. One is reminded, in particular, of that principle ascribed to Churchill: “Nations that go down fighting shall rise up again; those that surrender tamely are finished.”
With the foregoing in mind, let us now consider the case of the Heathen Saxons and their fascinating history of interfaith dialogue with the Christian Franks during the 8th and 9th centuries A.D. (Anno Deceptoris).
“Stridently opposed to abandoning the religion of their ancestors.”
When Hewald the White and Hewald the Black, two Christian Anglo-Saxon missionaries, left their native England on a mission trip to their Continental Saxon cousins sometime around 695, they were blessed with the greatest gift that could have been bestowed upon them: martyrdom.
According to the Venerable Bede, it was some village commoners (Bede uses the Latin vicani, “villager”) who slew the missionaries, and they did so in great haste in order to prevent any chance of the gospel-peddlers from meeting with their chieftain, whom the vicani feared might be swayed, with the result that “the whole people would be compelled to change its old religion for the new one.”
Fifty years (or so) later, another English missionary did manage to make contact with some Saxon nobles, and these responded at least sympathetically enough to provide protection … for as long as they were able to. But eventually a mob of Saxon commoners burned the newly built Church and chased away the missionary along with all those who had converted. This missionary, named Lebuin, was foolish enough to return and try again, only to once again narrowly escape with his life. Coward! Twice he declined the generosity proffered by the humble Saxons who would have been only too happy to arrange for this good Christian to meet his Savior sooner rather than later.
For more details and references on what is related in the above three paragraphs, see Eric J. Goldberg‘s 1995 paper on The Saxon Stellinga Reconsidered. That paper, as it’s title indicates, is primarily focused on the 841 Stellinga Uprising (which I will get to soon in a future installment), but it also spends some time establishing the broader context of and motivations for the Saxon resistance to Christianization. In particular, Goldberg discusses the class divisions within Saxon society and the ways in which these divisions influenced differing responses among different Saxons to the new religion.
To understand the interplay of social dynamics and religious allegiances, according to Goldberg, “One must turn back before Charlemagne’s momentous conquest of Saxony between 772 and 804 and consider the distinctive social and political structures of the Old Saxons.” In Old Saxon there were three distinct social classes called edhilingui, frilingi, and lazzi. The edhilingui were the upper class, a warrior nobility who were also the owners of large tracts of land. The frinlingi were free men, at least in theory, but had far less personal wealth than that edhilingui. The lazzi were the lower class, and these were not truly free, for they were by law bound to the land, and in effect they could be, and were, bought and sold along with that land.
There are two important things about the stratification of Old Saxon society, beyond the mere fact that, as in all human societies, such stratification existed. First, the distinction between the non-noble but free frilingi, and the non-free lazzi was not very great, at least according to the grimly quantified system of wergeld, which literally put a value on each human beling’s life. The life of an edhilingui was valued at 1,440 solidi, while that of a frilingi was only 1/6 of that, 240 solidi. However, the diference in value between the life of a frilingi and that of a lazzi was compatatively neglible, since a lazzi life was valued at 180 solidi, which is 75% of a frilingi life, which, by comparison, is valued at merely 17% of a edhilingui life!
Secondly, not only were the Saxons (unlike many other Germanic peoples, such as the Franks, Goths, and Vandals) not ruled by a king or duke or any similar monarch, but they had in place a political mechanism that served to block the rise of any single absolute ruler. The highest political and legal power among the Saxons resided in an annual pan-Saxon gathering in Marklo, on the Weser river, to which each Saxon district (there were 100 or so) sent representatives from each of the three classes. Not only were the lazzi and frilingi represented (if not proportionately) at this “general council”, they also had the right to be armed, at least during times of war (and it was the general council that decided on questions of war and peace).
According to Goldstein, at least some of the Saxon upper class were sympathetic to the new religion of Christianity, while the frilingi and lazzi “were stridently opposed to abandoning the religion of their ancestors“:
There were most likely several reasons for this social division with regard to attitudes toward Christianity. As with the Christianization of most Germanic peoples in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, missionary work in its early stages was an elite business that catered to the Pagan nobility. Coverting a gens babarorum began with the kings, chieftains, and nobles and only slowly trickled down to the masses. The was the case in seventh and eighth century Saxony. The two Hewalds were martyred on their way to meet with the chieftain of a pagus [local district], and Lebuin had his nobilissimi supporters. Since the vicani of Bede’s account feared that their chieftains would force Christianity on them from above, clearly they viewed the new religion as an aggressive encroachment by the nobles on their already limited political power. Also, the frilingi and lazzi probably viewed Christianity as a threat to the Marklo council, the institution through which they had a voice in Saxon politics. The council was not only an annual institution of government but a solemn Pagan religious occassion as well. At the beginning of the council the Saxons “first offered up prayers to their Gods, as is their custom, asking them to protect their country and to guide them in making decrees both useful to themselves and pleasing to the Gods.” [Vita Lebuini antiqua 6, p. 793] Such close connections between religious and governmental rituals probably blurred any clear distinction between Paganism and politics at the Marklo council … [T]he Saxons selected their military leaders by drawing lots, a procedure that also had Pagan religious significance. The frilingi and lazzi therefore probably viewed this nova cultura [Christianity] as a threat both to their ancestors’ religion and to the institution of the Marklo council.
Charlemagne’s conquest of Saxony was a momentous turning point that overthrew the distinctive political structures and pagan culture of the Saxons. Before the conquest, Franco-Saxon relations had been a checkered history of wars, alliances, and Saxon payments of tribute. By the 770s Charlemagne resolved to incorporate Saxony into his growing empire, apparently in order to settle once and for all border disputes with the Saxons. The result was a series of wars, raids, treaties and rebellions between 772 and 804 through which Saxony south of the Elbe was gradually incorporated into the Frankish empire … This was a war of conquest and conversion. Charlemagne equated Saxon submission to Frankish rule with the acceptance of Christianity; according to one Frankish author, Charlemagne resolved “to persevere until the Saxons had either been overcome and subjected to the Christian religion or totally exterminated.” [Annales regni Francorum s.a. 775, MGH SS 1:153]
Finally (for now), here is another excerpt, this one from Alessandro Barbero’s Charlemagne: Father of a Continent, focussing on the religious dimension of the conflict between the Saxons and the Franks:
Charles [Charlemagne] had not set himself the declared aim of converting the Saxons to Christianity right from the very beginning. Before him, his father and grandfather had fought against them, and on each occasion, after having defeated them, they were satisfied with the payment of tribute. Einhard [c.775-840, Frankish courtier and biographer of Charlemagne] who was writing when the wounds had had time to heal and could have easily attributed Charles’s campaigns beyond the Rhine to reassuring predestinations, actually asserts in very pragmatic terms that ‘there were too many reasons for disturbing the peace, for example the border between us and them crossed an open plain, except in a few places where great forests or mountain chains more clearly divided the two countries. Thus murder, raids, and arson were continuously committed by one side or the other.’ In the chronicler’s opinion, this insecurity of the frontier with the barbarians inevitably meant that ‘in the end the exasperated Franks could no longer be contented with returning each blow with another and decided to wage full-scale war against them.’
It is clear that religious motivations were inextricably bound up with political ones, as since the time of Charles Martel I [c. 688-741], Frankish swords had sustained missionary work beyond the Rhine. One of the conditions that Pepin [714-768] imposed on the defeated Saxons was the guarantee that the Frankish and Anglo-Saxon clergy working in the area would be free to continue their apostolic tasks without hindrance. It must have appeared obvious to some of these missionaries that Charles’s war had a religious justification. ‘If you do not accept belief in God,’ Saint Lebuin told the Saxons, ‘there is a king in the next country who will enter your land, conquer it, and lay waste.’ But the Saxons obstinately refused to believe, so in the end that king had to make his move.
[The “Yes We Can” graphic is from the newly re-issued “Youth Against Christ” t-shirt available for sale from the Behemoth official webstore here.]